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How to Deal With Employee Conflict

Conflict solving

21 September, 2020

Adam Bauman, Engineering Manager at Quizlet, recalls how he helped resolve a workplace conflict by centering his conflict resolution efforts on three key questions.

Problem

One of my reports got into a conflict with an individual from another department but with whom they had to continue working closely. They would attend the same meetings day in, day out and would often get antagonized and angry at each other. My other reports also started to complain about the conflict and from what I’d heard, the other manager was aware of the situation.
 

Because they were not able to work together it was reasonable to question should they stay on the project together. At that point, both the other manager and I realized that the existing conflict could not continue. However, since it wasn’t something they could work out between themselves, I had to become more involved.
 

Actions taken

My initial response as a manager was to simply listen to my report and let him vent to me. In more mild or moderate conflicts, venting and knowing their manager would listen with a genuine interest to help, would be sufficient. But this was a more severe case.
 

Before taking any actions, I wanted to see their interaction first-hand. People tend to be subjective and unintentionally distort their understanding of events; therefore I wanted to witness their interaction in the meeting as an impartial party. I also proposed to the other manager to do the same and add one more perspective, but they ended up not doing it. Being with the company for a long time, I knew all actors of the conflict fairly well, which made it much easier to understand all nuances of the problem.
 

After having a more comprehensive -- and hopefully impartial -- understanding of the situation, I had a conversation with my report. I shared my observation and then have them answer three questions:

  • Was there anything that you could have done differently to avoid the conflict? I gave them enough time to self-reflect and was glad that they were considerate enough to notice that they should have listened more, be less aggressive, etc.
  • What do you think the other person could have done differently to avoid the conflict? They thought it through and came up with a rather reasonable list of actions.
  • Can you imagine what made the other person act the way they did? This was the most difficult part -- having them empathize with another person and put themselves in their shoes. I wanted them to understand the other person’s viewpoint and reasons behind their actions (maybe they were under pressure from their manager to get things done). Also, I wanted them to reflect on the situation beyond their inter-personal conflict and see the structural reasons behind it (the other person is product-driven and engineers are quality-driven and don’t like to be put under time pressure).
     

This conversation allowed my report to gain a broader perspective, become more empathic and take their own share of responsibility. I then summed up what could be done to improve the situation, have them agreed and decided to talk to the other manager.
 

Lessons learned

  • Most people are conflict-averse and if you are not ready to deal with conflicts, you are likely not ready to be a manager.
  • Before jumping to conclusions and taking for granted what other people are saying, try to witness things yourself and stay neutral throughout the process.
  • We see the world through our own eyes and often forget to include other people’s perspectives. I am a big believer in the concept of sonder -- the realization that everyone has a story (https://www.dictionaryofobscuresorrows.com/post/23536922667/sonder). That is what causes most of the conflicts (around the office and beyond), but also what solves them. Try to understand why people are thinking or acting the way they are and you are halfway through to solving the problem.

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